April 2009, the San Francisco Zen Center: I’m learning to sew Buddha’s robe. It’s an ancient ritual, practiced here by all candidates for ordination. My instructor, Zenkei Blanche Hartman, the 84-year-old former abbess of the center, helps me cut eight yards of black cotton into 49 pieces of differing sizes. Then she demonstrates how to sew them back together into an intricate geometric patchwork measuring just over seven by four feet. This is the vestment I’ll receive next summer when I shave my head and am ordained as a Zen Buddhist priest.
There. My first stitch, done. Only 13,999 left to go, more or less. With each tiny stitch, I silently repeat a three-word Japanese mantra: Namu kié butsu. “I take refuge in Buddha.”
Now, a year later, I’m back home and still sewing. The ritual gives me lots of time to think, and when I think about becoming a priest in an organized religion, I shake my not-yet-shaven head in disbelief. I was raised by agnostics who rejected their religious traditions. My father’s family were fundamentalist Christians. My mother’s were Zen Buddhists. My earliest memory is of my maternal grandparents, who had come all the way from Japan to visit us in Connecticut. On that first morning, my mother sent me to call them for breakfast. I opened their bedroom door and found them sitting, eyes closed, cross-legged, on the floor. It was the strangest sight I’d ever seen.
A decade later, in the ’60s, meditation was cool, so I sat on the floor of my bedroom and stared at a candle, waiting for something mind altering to happen. Nothing did. It was more fun to take drugs and drink and smoke, and I was an angry, rebellious teenager. I developed a lot of bad habits, which stayed with me as an adult, but so did my interest in Buddhism.
When I turned 40, my parents started to die, from heart disease in my father’s case and from Alzheimer’s and cancer in my mother’s. Caring for them over the next decade, watching their deaths, changed me. I needed to make sense of their suffering as well as my own—because in spite of a successful career and a happy marriage, my life felt strangely empty.
In Zen there’s an admonition to “practice like your head’s on fire”—urgently, intensely—which is what I did, hoping to relieve my distress. I found a teacher and a community of practitioners. I got up at 4:30 in the morning and meditated until 9 at night. I sat hundreds of hours of zazen.
Zazen is the practice of “just sitting.” I watch my breath. I watch my mind. Often I feel pain and resistance and occasionally a deep sense of well-being. Little by little, I developed a confidence in my ability to accept whatever occurs, neither rejecting the unpleasant nor clinging to the pleasant. Little by little, habits loosened their hold. When a craving grabbed me, I understood that it would pass. I stopped medicating myself with alcohol, and the rages diminished of their own accord. Little by little, I was able to relax with just what is, in each moment.
Namu kié butsu. Zen practice transformed my life, and now I’m sewing my priest’s robes because I want to help uphold this tradition and give something back. On namu, the needle goes in. On kié, the point emerges. On butsu, the needle pulls the silk thread through. The buds on the maples unfurl, and summer is almost here. Only a few more stitches left to go.
Ruth Ozeki, a novelist, was ordained as a Soto Zen Buddhist priest by Zoketsu Norman Fischer last month. In Soto Zen Buddhism, priests can be married, and her husband is glad about that.
Originally published in the July/August 2010 issue of More.